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Maryland casino revenues beginning to recover, but workers question whether it’s worth it

Table games dealer SoonChon offers a guest a spritz of hand sanitizer upon her arrival to the roulette table during the Horseshoe Casino's reopening to rewards members last month. The union for dealers is pushing for more protections for workers, such as plexiglass barriers.
Table games dealer SoonChon offers a guest a spritz of hand sanitizer upon her arrival to the roulette table during the Horseshoe Casino's reopening to rewards members last month. The union for dealers is pushing for more protections for workers, such as plexiglass barriers. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Maryland’s casinos are starting to bounce back after a three-month closure due to the coronavirus pandemic, but some workers say they don’t feel safe on the job.

The general managers of the state’s six privately owned casinos told state lawmakers Tuesday that they’ve had workers who don’t want to return over health concerns.

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“There was fear and trepidation upon reopening, and not all of our team members want to come back to work,” said Skylar Dice, general manager of the Rocky Gap Casino Resort in Allegany County. He said it was hard to compete with the extra $600 weekly unemployment benefits that were offered through last week, but also that some workers had “genuine concerns” about contracting the virus.

Jorge Perez, president of the MGM National Harbor casino in Prince George’s County, said he has open positions because some employees haven’t returned.

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“They just don’t feel comfortable working in the new conditions,” he said during a video meeting of the House of Delegates Ways and Means Committee.

Gov. Larry Hogan closed the casinos in mid-March, at the beginning of what became a quick succession of shutdown orders culminating in a stay-at-home order March 30. Casinos were allowed to start reopening in June, provided they followed health and safety recommendations such as requiring masks and operating at only 50% of their usual capacity.

The casinos, which typically send $60 million per month to the state, contributed nothing in April and May when they were closed, and $14.9 million for a partially open month in June. Casino money helps fund public schools, the horse racing industry, a gambling addiction program and local community projects.

“To be probably brutally frank, I think we have to accept a long-term lowering of our expected casino contributions,” said Gordon Medenica, director of the state’s Lottery and Gaming Control Agency.

Optimistically, the casinos might contribute 70% or 80% of what they normally would to the state, but they won’t hit their predicted numbers from before the pandemic.

Since Hollywood Casino Perryville reopened in Cecil County, attendance is down, but revenues are up 17%, said Matthew Heiskell, the casino’s general manager. He attributed that to “pent-up demand” that might not last.

“The reality for the future is incredibly uncertain,” he said.

The Live! Casino and Hotel at Arundel Mills has had “a pretty healthy return to business,” said Joe Weinberg, managing partner and CEO of parent company Cordish Gaming Group.

Randy Conroy, general manager and senior vice president of Baltimore’s Horseshoe Casino, said 1,000 of the facility’s 2,100 slot machines are operational and half of the table game seats are open. He said masks are required for all guests and staff, and everyone has their temperature checked.

Coronavirus tests are required for Horseshoe employees who report on daily questionnaires that they’ve had exposure to someone with the virus or experienced certain symptoms, Conroy said.

But the union representing dealers and floor supervisors says Horseshoe and parent company Caesars Entertainment aren’t doing enough to protect workers and patrons.

Horseshoe lacks plexiglass partitions at gaming tables, which are common at other casinos and nearly every retail store, said Donna Wiley, a dealer who is a shop steward for UAW Local 17.

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While workers returning to the job were given an orientation, the health and safety practices aren’t written down and are unevenly applied, Wiley said in an interview.

Dealers must use disinfectant wipes to clean their tables, but aren’t given gloves to wear and can’t leave to wash their hands. As a result, some workers have been irritated by the chemicals, Wiley said.

The outcome is that some workers have declined to come back and others are stressed when they are at work.

“Most people aren’t feeling good in there,” Wiley said. “It took a job that we used to love and turned it into dread.”

Horseshoe workers are planning a demonstration Wednesday afternoon outside Baltimore’s City Hall in hopes of drawing attention to their concerns. If management won’t implement better protections, they hope, elected officials might take notice and tighten requirements for casinos.

“You shouldn’t have to beg to be safe at work,” Wiley said.

Horseshoe officials did not respond to a request for comment on the union’s specific concerns.

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